The Great Chess Face-Off

NEWS that a computer has been perfected which can play chess seems to have brought on more enthusiasm than I would have predicted. I am not, though, much of a judge, since I eliminated all forms of mathematics from my activities years ago. I look upon chess as an amusement similar to splitting firewood. Don't misunderstand - I don't play chess and never did. I know nothing about it.

This chess-playing device can think 720,000 times in one second and has already defeated several human experts at the game. My instant response to this breakthrough seems not to have occurred to anybody else - yet. I suggest that they make two of these chess-playing computers and set 'em against each other and let 'em play. Hang a sign on the doorknob that says DO NOT DISTURB.

The mechanical chess player is by no means new. There used to be an amusement park in Boston called Austin & Stone's Museum. It had a mechanical chess player that had never been beaten - at least Mr. Austin and Mr. Stone said it never had, and they should know.

I'm not sure if I remember that museum, and it may be that I merely heard about it until I thought I remembered. But I did see the mechanical chess player and watched my Uncle Eddie challenge it - it may well have been after the museum went out of business and the mechanical chess player was at another location.

Uncle Eddie was not, really, a chess fancier, but he did win a few checker tournaments. Somewhere in our now-dispersed family keepsakes his books on checkers might still be found if anybody knew which back shelf. He never called the game ``checkers,'' but pronounced it ``drafts'' and spelled it ``draughts.''

My uncle was fascinated by the Austin & Stone mechanical chess player, and went to play a game with it every time he was in Boston. He took me with him, and I suppose I showed alarm at approaching the thing, because he held my hand and assured me it was friendly and wouldn't bite. I stood behind the railing with the folks who came to watch Uncle Eddie play.

The somewhat human-like figure sat cross-legged in the manner of an Oriental deity, and the chess board was on its knees. There was an attempt at a lighting effect, for the whole area was in shadow but the chessboard was not. The challenger, this time Uncle Eddie, sat on a stool, his back to his spectators.

The thing had clockworks of some sort, for it hummed and clicked and clanked and the arms moved with jerks. The answer was a competent chess master that Austin & Stone paid well, and I've been told that instead of being inside the thing he was concealed in a booth above, where he watched the play, decided on his moves, and then activated the machine.

If anybody ever did beat the mechanical man, I daresay Austin & Stone had a way of keeping the fact from the public. There was quite a sum deposited with a Boston bank to go to a human winner. Uncle Eddie never came close to winning and didn't expect to.

It didn't happen while I watched, but Uncle Eddie told me the machine had a way of taking care of challengers who tried to cheat, or carelessly abused the rules. It would whirr and buzz, and in a gesture of disdain would sweep all the chess pieces off the board. That took care of that.

The time I stood as a lad and watched Uncle Eddie prepare to play I was entranced by his posture of extreme intensity, something I've otherwise seen only at piano concerts when the gifted virtuoso flexes his fingers before tackling a few mazurkas by Chopin. I could see that this is something chess generates in true believers, and I think it caused me to prefer splitting firewood.

I have often wondered what became of the marvelous mechanical chess player. Austin & Stone long since closed its doors - both the ingress and the egress. P.T. Barnum stole that one from them - a sign that pointed through a door toward the egress. Thinking an egress is maybe like a giraffe, people went through the door to find themselves out in the street and the door closed behind them. It took another ticket to get back in.

Somebody must know about it if that mechanical chess player is still around. Wouldn't it be fun to shine it up, get it working, and match it with this new computer that can think 720,000 times a second!

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